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Money Monster (2016)

moneymonster_posterJodie Foster hasn’t acted in a movie since 2013’s Elysium, and if you saw that movie you might have some sense why she’s taking time away. As a director, she has few film credits to her name, which makes each new Foster directing effort raise the question, “Why this one?” I would assume her last effort, 2011’s The Beaver, was her desire to work again with her Maverick co-star Mel Gibson and perhaps give him a career boost. Money Monster is a would-be hostage thriller with a socially conscience message about the greed and recklessness of Wall Street; however, the Bernie Sanders faithful, let alone anyone mildly educated on the excesses of Wall Street, will find this movie surely lacking, as will anyone looking for a competent and engaging thriller.

Lee Gates (George Clooney) is the host of Money Monster, a financial entertainment show where he provides stock tips to his loyal viewers. One day and angry man, Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), wanders onto the set brandishing a gun. He demands Lee strap on a bomb vest. Kyle lost his life savings on a bad stock tip and he demands justice. Lee agrees to hear the guy out and get to the bottom of why this stock dramatically fell of a cliff, which leads him to suspect internal manipulation from the CEO (Dominic West). Lee’s director Patty (Julia Roberts) stays put through the duress and remains the voice in his ear, coaching him to safety and running research to discover the truth.

george-clooney-and-jank-oconnell-filming-new-movie-money-monster-03While I was watching Money Monster I had to remind myself that this wannabe message movie existed in our reality, because the brunt of its ire against Wall Street criminal shenanigans is targeted specifically against one bad trader instead of the system. It’s like this movie exists before the 2008 financial meltdown, before the Oscar-winning movies Inside Job and The Big Short, but it doesn’t. It’s borderline insulting that the screenplay myopically focuses all of its attention on one bad actor and lets the rest of the Wall Street elite escape blameless for criminal misdeeds. The bulk of the movie after Kyle begins his hostage standoff is tracking down this bad trader and digging through archives to pin the blame for a stock fall on this guy, all the while keeping him away from the news so he doesn’t get suspicious. It’s a ludicrous turn of events that manages to take a big picture story with relevancy and find the smallest, most insignificant way to tell its tiny story. The condemnation should be for the system and not one guy, and not one character breaks from this preposterous thinking. It feels like they exist in a different time and place. If you didn’t know anything about Wall Street before this movie you would still be left clueless. Is there supposed to be a happy ending when they bring this guy to justice? The movie sets up an ending that doesn’t exactly feel like anyone learned a lesson or even that the villain was properly punished (oh no, he suffers the scorn of Internet memes!). The final line is so glib and self-satisfied that I groaned. By the end of Money Monster I was wondering what any character had learned from the experience except, maybe, to have better locks on the studio doors.

The other debilitating problem is that Money Monster is a movie that cannot find a character for you to care about. The setup should be so obvious and elicit audience sympathy and a natural underdog to root for against a corrupt system. Instead Kyle is a moron. First off he invests all of his money into one single stock based upon one tip from Lee’s TV show. That’s a pretty big risk. Next he takes hostages and makes demands, and yet none of those demands are for the return of his money but rather a simple apology. There’s also the fact that he’s more a ranting and raving angry lunatic than somebody who has targeted ire against the body of Wall Street, making for a pretty uninteresting hostage scenario. You also have to factor in that there will be no good outcome for Kyle, and so he’ll be leaving his girlfriend and unborn child left to fend for themselves after he blew away all their money on a bad gamble. This is not a sympathetic character nor is he rendered in a fashion to make him that interesting. He’s an angry and impulsive man whose actions are almost always about himself and his sense of being wronged. The other two primary characters, Lee and Patty, are completely absent personalities beyond staying cool under pressure. If you put a gun to my head I would not be able to tell you anything about either of those characters as people. Lee doesn’t seem to go through any sort of introspection over his own culpability with his TV show, and Patty is so laser focused on the problem at hand that we know nothing about her other than her capability. Spending 90 minutes with this trio of lackluster characters is a waste of 90 minutes.

money-monster-julia-robertsDespite the brisk pacing, I was bored mercilessly with Money Monster. I just didn’t care and Foster and company gave me no reason to care. The pacing made it hard to develop these characters; they felt like chess pieces being randomly assembled across a board, moved when the plot required it, and inert without these manipulations. When the movie goes outside is another example of nothing feelings believable. The will-he-be-shot suspense sequences are hackneyed and dumb. There are a couple of moments of solid comic relief at the expense of character egos, with Emily Meade (That Awkward Moment) serving as the highlight of an otherwise monstrously mediocre movie. Here is a list of other actors that are wasted in do-nothing parts: Caitriona Balfe (TV’s Outlander), Giancarlo Esposito (TV’s Breaking Bad), Christopher Denham (Argo), Lenny Venito (TV’s The Sopranos), and Chris Bauer (TV’s True Blood).

Money Monster is a disappointment in just about every stripe, from its perfunctory performances from it’s a-level movie stars, to the development of its characters, from its suspense sequences, and especially from its frustrating and laughably short-sighted vilification of Wall Street misdeeds on one culprit. It’s like this movie was pulled from a time capsule from the 1990s. Foster’s direction is perfectly acceptable though indistinct from any other journeyman. I cannot say what attracted her to this project as a director except for the opportunity to work with Clooney and Roberts. Otherwise, Money Monster is a thriller that keeps butting heads against reality, reminding the audience at every turn of its airless artificiality and stark superficiality.

Nate’s Grade: C

Elysium (2013)

elysium-firstposter-full2With the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the face, Elysium is a sci-fi action movie with more on its mind than pyrotechnics. It’s writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to 2009’s out-of-nowhere hit, District 9, a film so good that the Academy even nominated it for Best Picture that year, a rarity for a sci-fi flick. The apartheid allegory of District 9 was pretty straightforward, but Blomkamp and company found inspiring and fresh ways to tell a rousing story that worked in tandem with its social commentary. Elysium takes the haves and have nots to an admitted extreme.

IIn 2153, the rich have left Earth for a floating space station known as Elysium. It’s a luxurious paradise where technology can miraculously zap people to complete health. Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) is in charge of Homeland Security and protecting Elysium from the less desirables that want to break in. Those “less desirables” would be the inhabitants of Earth. The planet has become an overcrowded, dirty, impoverished slum; Earth as third world. Max (Matt Damon) is an excon working a factory line for a sneering corporate bigwig (William Fichtner) struggling to leave behind a life of crime. His childhood friend, Frey (Alice Braga), works as a nurse at a hospital, but she’s got her own worries, namely a terminally ill daughter. After an accident at work blasts Max with radiation, he has five days to live. If he can just make it to Elysium, he can be cured. The problem is that Delacourt is shooting down spaceships trying to land on Elysium, including ones filled with women and children. To get off planet, Max needs to help in a heist, but it’s prized codes that could lower the defenses of Elysium and make anyone (ANYONE!) a citizen, thus available for medical treatment. To make sure this doesn’t happen, Delacourt relies on a rogue mercenary, Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a crazed madman who leaps at the chance to do dirty work. The hunt is on for Max.

94576_galThe socio-political commentary isn’t terribly veiled here, and maybe that’s because now Blomkamp has bigger targets than South Africa’s governmental policy. I didn’t have a problem with the fact that the inhabitants of luxury are portrayed as all white and that the denizens of the impoverished Earth are mostly non-white minorities (if minorities dominate a future Earth, when do they become majorities?). It’s clear that Blomkamp intends for Elysium to represent the United States. The poor who break through into the Promised Land, many to give their children a better life, or a life at all, only to be deported back to a slum, are clear stand-ins for contemporary immigration, notably Latin America. This is all fine by my book, though I can already hear the persecuted cries of some conservative commentators. It’s not as refined a commentary and that’s fine, not every message needs to be subtle, but I want more with my message than a simple rich vs. poor allusion. We never get to see what the people of Elysium are like, nor what most of that world is like beyond wide idyllic imagery. Fichtner’s character does a good job of symbolizing the callousness of an elite, but then he’s just one guy. The difficulty of maintaining a working wage is given the most care in the film, but much of the higher thinking takes a backseat for the third act movie heroics. The shift is acceptable but it makes a thin development of socio-economic commentary that much thinner.

When it comes to action, Blomkamp certainly knows how to stage a scene to get your pulse racing. The only problem is that there isn’t terribly much action to Elysium, or at least methodically sustained action to satisfy. You always feel like you’re getting a taste of something cooler down the road but it never fully materializes, much like the exoskeleton suit. It looks cool, it provides some progression, but it doesn’t lead to much. What does it accomplish? It allows him a port into downloading the Elyisum codes, but so could anything else. If anything, the metal exoskeleton seems like more of a hindrance, dragging Max down with extra weight and bulk. It pains me to say that the cool exoskeleton, such a prominent marketing feature, could have easily been eliminated as well. The best action in the movie is a heist in the middle that manages to juggle a team of good guys, a team of bad guys, a mark, and a deep sense of urgency for the score. It’s terrific and makes fun use of Blomkamp’s inventive future weapons. The rest of the film is mostly a series of chases, many of which are well orchestrated but only flirt with long-lasting action satisfaction.

The third act on Elysium is an entertaining and noisy conclusion, except Blomkamp sets himself up for limitation. Some spoilers to follow so tread carefully, reader. Elysium gets taken over by Kruger and his team as a defacto coup… except, well there are only three of them. We don’t even get to see them train the robot sentries on enemies or the populace of Elysium. I really don’t know how far-reaching their hastily staged coup is going. We want Kruger to be the big baddie that Max has to fight right before the cusp of the climax, but when there are only two other dudes who aren’t making great use of their fancy resources, it feels too boxed in and restrained. The action is fun while it lasts.

101212_galAnother niggling concern is the glut of side characters and their side stories that don’t feel organically integrated into the hero’s story. The flashbacks to Max as a kid could have been completely wiped out. They don’t add more information to the story and feel a tad too hokey for the movie. Sister Saintly Nun espouses wisdom and promises Max will be destined for one great thing in the future (could I settle for two “kinda good” things?).  The bigger distraction is Frey and her sick kid, a.k.a. the Angelic Sick Child, you know, the type that feels so at peace with things and with no worry. This is a staple of the movies. Her only purpose in the narrative is to goad Max into making a bigger sacrifice, to think of others, not that beforehand the guy was displayed as being particularly selfish. Then there’s Max’s friend Julio (Diego Luna) who serves little purpose other than to carry him out of the occasional scene and to, of course, be sacrificed to drive the hero forward to achieve his goal. There’s a middleman who arranges for people to get identities that will be read on Elysium, if they get on there safely first. The villains are also pretty one-dimensional in their stock villainy: Kruger a sociopathic killing machine and Delacourt a tyrant. None of these characters leave much of an impression to make you want to take time away from the main story arc. Worse, many of them feel vaguely characterized and are clear plot beat generators rather than people. Maybe Max would be better off as a loner.

The acting is also all over the place. The worst offender is Foster (Carnage), who weirdly over enunciates every syllable in an affected future accent. She also seems to bob and swivel her head a lot as she talks, as if the Oscar-winning actress really had to go to the bathroom but was holding it at bay to complete her takes. Damon (Promised Land) is a reliable action hero but realistically, it’s a little curious that the main character would be, by all accounts, white. It makes much more sense for the savior of planet Earth to be like those left behind, but then I don’t really want to wade into deeper racial subtext than necessary. The real treat of the movie is Copley (The A-Team) who is having a ball playing a sword-wielding psycho killer. He provides a notable spark whenever onscreen, bringing a menace that makes you tale notice. Again, I just wish there was more to the character than his vague back-story and bunt motivations.

Despite what has seemed like a fairly negative review from the start, Elysium still a good movie but beware higher expectations forged from District 9’s unique alchemy. There are a lot of familiar plot beats here and everything from the characters, to the action, to the world building feels like it could have been pushed further. It feels like they took the freshness of District 9 and applied it to a more tired-and-true blockbuster formula. Blomkamp drops us into an intriguing world but I wanted more of just about everything. More with the characters, more with the plot, more with the socio-political commentary, more with the ins and outs of this future world and its inhabitants. The ending is also a bit jubilantly naïve given the powers of the Powers That Be. Really, a keystroke sets everything back to scratch. Again, I’m being more critical than I intend to be. Elysium is quite an entertaining movie with great visuals and Blompkamp is certainly a visionary auteur to praise, but it’s hard not to feel a smidge of disappointment with the man when you know what he’s capable of, even with a perfectly fine movie.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Beaver (2011)

Eerily mirroring his real-life public breakdown, Mel Gibson stars in The Beaver as Walter Black, a man crippled by depression who finds a therapeutic outlet via animal puppet. The beaver is a puppet that Walter chooses to speak through, albeit in a cockney Brit accent that sounds faintly like Ray Winstone (The Departed). Given this twee premise, you’d expect plenty of laughs, but under the prosaic direction of Jodie Foster, also starring as Black’s anguished wife, the movie comes off like a stupefying heart-tugger, a sub-American Beauty style in suburban mawkishness. The comedy and drama elements don’t gel at all, and The Beaver is too tonally disjointed to settle down. Gibson gives a strong performance as a man battling his demons, and the subject matter of mental illness is thankfully treated with respect despite the fantastical premise. It’s the extraneous moments outside the beaver that help to detract and distract. The story of Walter’s son (Anton Yelchin) worrying that he’s already showing signs of mental illness, doomed to end up like the father he hates, is a palpable storyline. But writer Kyle Killen sums up this dilemma with clumsy brevity, having the son jot down post-it notes of behavior he has in common with dad, behavior to be eliminated. The entire subplot involving the son romancing the school Valedictorian (Jennifer Lawrence, sunny and beautiful as always), a pretty gal troubled with grief, never feels authentic. That’s the problem with The Beaver; too much feels inauthentic to be dramatic and it’s too subdued and brusque to be dark comedy. It’s like the strangest public therapy session ever for a fading star.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Brave One (2007)

The Brave One, when distilled to its purest essence, is Jodie’s Foster’s Death Wish, but there isn’t anything necessarily wrong about exploring this scuzzy territory again with a fresh set of eyes. The film chronicles a New York City radio host (Foster) who is the victim of a brutal attack that leaves her boyfriend dead and her in a coma for three weeks. Shattered and hardened, she buys a gun for her own protection and finds herself in situations that require one. The Brave One features a lot of audience-approved ass kicking and an absurd amount of dangerous scenarios that Foster seems to casually find on a nightly basis. But what separates The Brave One from the usual grisly pap of the genre is that it refuses to pander to audience bloodlust. Director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) complicates a simple case of vengeance by making an audience contemplate the true ramifications of violence and whether they are ultimately worth the price. Foster gives a ragged and emotionally raw performance. She discovers how easy killing comes to her and Foster struggles to keep her crumbling sense of humanity, with her last tie to the working world is her friendship with a deeply compassionate cop (Terrence Howard, terrific yet again). The most affecting moments are between Foster and Terrence as they construct a rather moving companionship where each feels out the other and Foster actively tries to avoid getting caught. The end of The Brave One certainly could have followed through with its morally ambiguous deliberations and open-ended questions, but while its climax does pull some punches it doesn’t wrap everything up with a bow either. This is high-end work for a guilty pleasure genre most noted for having its morals face down in the gutter. Now what the hell does the title refer to?

Nate’s Grade: B

Inside Man (2006)

Spike Lee is one of the most recognizable names in film. Usually, the edgy, pointedly opinionated director sets his sights on racial strife, human relations, and satire. So what is Lee’s name doing attached to the Hollywood heist flick, Inside Man? For starters, it’s his most commercial film of his career, a sharp, engrossing thriller that doesn’t blunt his distinct voice.

Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) has set forth the perfect bank robbery. He and a handful of associates, dressed as painters with their faces obscured, have locked down a bank in downtown Manhattan. They’ve rounded up everyone inside, robbed them of their trusted cell phones, and ordered them to wear identical painter suits and masks. Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) is tasked with resolving this standoff, which the media is all too eager to cover in its escalation. What could the crooks be after? Well, bank owner Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) is certainly nervous about a key document he has inside a safety deposit box, a document linking him to scratching the backs of Nazis. He pits Madeline White (Jodie Foster) to retrieve the document at any cost, and she has the tenacity to wedge herself between her political contacts and the police. All the characters keep their cards held close and try and outfox the other, while figuring out what exactly is going on inside that bank.

This movie is a born crowd pleaser. The heist and ensuing complications really grab an audience early on. There’s a certain thrill watching Dalton, so cool and clam, plot out his bank robbery like the script is still in hand. The crooks are always one step ahead of the police as well as the audience, and I mean that in the best terms. It’s great fun just wondering how Dalton’s team is going to get out of their many jams, and the results are rarely unsatisfying. Inside Man knows exactly when to tantalize with intrigue, inject humor (“Penalty of code 36DD?”), or tighten the tension. The filmmakers know exactly what button to press and at what time. For a two-hour plus film, Lee keeps the film at a swift pace and smoothly weaves his characters in and out. The draw of Inside Man is watching the tit-for-tat game between Frazier and Dalton, too stone-faced pros trying to outsmart each other. Lee smartly allows his characters and story to take center stage and refrains from goosing a strong genre flick with some annoying, superficial artistic artifice.

Inside Man is a heist that’s refreshingly grounded in reality. Nothing is altogether too out there or complicated to the point where you’d need a score sheet to follow along. Dalton is the movie’s star and Inside Man gives him the center stage to draw us in and keep us guessing. In fact, the flick is so grounded in the plausible that mainstream audiences might be put off by the fact that there isn’t any super twist saved for the end. I think the same audiences Inside Man is so fine-tuned to entertain will discover the lack of a last-second twist as underwhelming. I hope we’re not to the point, as an audience, where we’d rather have an illogical, forced twist ending than something that closes our story with satisfying maturity and finesse. The biggest plot hole you’ll have to swallow with Inside Man is that a businessman would keep a document that linked him to the Nazis. What’s that about? Sentimental value? I’m also still a bit hazy on the motivation of our crooks.

Even though this is a crowd-pleaser, the film is not without its missteps. Inside Man has one of the worst scores I have heard for a movie, ever. Allow me to explain why I feel so brutally, and I do. The score flashes inappropriate mood all throughout the film, robbing many sequences of drama and calling attention to itself. Take for instance a phone conversation between Frazier and Dalton; we cut back and forth between the two and each actor has a different music score. Frazier’s is a jaunty jazz riff, while Dalton’s is the more traditional brooding orchestral number. Because of the schizophrenic musical score this moment becomes funny. The best example of how this score is dreadful is during a scene late where SWAT storms inside the bank. The camera takes their point of view and creeps through the bank lobby, and then you hear a horn (trumpet?) reverberate. It gets louder and then quieter in beats, like a high school brass orchestra just whizzed by in a race car. Then it keeps going but in another direction. At first I was confused, and then I thought, “Did Dalton actually set up a horn section to distract the police?” No, it’s just the awful Inside Man score that totally takes you out of the movie. Scores should enhance the movie, not turn drama into comedy.

Lee also doesn’t help his story by including so many flash-forwards in time. They mostly rob Inside Man of key suspense points. Now we know the bank robbers get away, we know their identities are still unknown, and we know no one died. Luckily, the charisma of the leads and the clever storyline can survive Lee shooting the movie in the foot. The movie also has what feels like the longest denouement since 2003’s Return of the King 20-minute hug fest.

The quality cast definitely gives Inside Man a boost. Washington is on autopilot but is still charming as ever while being intense and intuitive. Foster is like a female version of Mr. Wolf (Pulp Fiction) but full of steely determination. It says something when really talented actors like Willem Defoe and Chiwetel Ejiofor take tiny roles. As it should be, Owen is the standout. He’s so menacing and composed that you not only want Dalton to get away with the bank holdup, you want him to humiliate and embarrass his opponents even more. I?m convinced that in the world of film there’s no cooler actor than Clive Owen at this point. He adds a touch of badass to every role, with the notable exception of Derailed. At this point, I would pay to hear him recite the phone book and walk away going, “Wow, I didn’t know Aaron A. Anderson of 1200 West Avenue sounded so kickass!” Clive Owen is that cool.

Inside Man is a sharp, intelligent, mostly satisfying heist flick with a terrific ensemble. Lee’s most mainstream picture ever is a born crowd-pleaser, despite some missteps here and there (flash forwards, a poor score). The acting all around is top-notch, and the flick works as a tight and mature genre piece, simultaneously covering all its genre bases and playing up the smarts. I hope audiences appreciate the sense of believability with the film and don’t walk away irked that there is no super last-second twist. Inside Man isn’t anything groundbreaking but it knows how to tease an audience and tell a good guessing game of a tale.

Nate’s Grade: B

Flightplan (2005)

Anyone else tired of seeing that damn trailer for Flightplan? Ever since maybe June, I’ve been seeing Jodie Foster freak out on an airplane. The trailer also had the misfortune of revealing way too much information about the film’s plot, seriously spoiling a key moment. This got me thinking about other movie trailers that spoil the movie. The worst offender I can fathom is 1998’s The Negotiator, where Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey are pitted against each other as hostage negotiators on opposite sides. The trailer had the nerve to reveal that Spacey and Jackson team up in the end to fight The Man collectively. Why does it seem that movie trailers these days spell out film twists? Are movie audiences demanding more investment before shelling out money? Do studios just not have faith in audiences anymore? With all this in mind, I ventured into Flightplan with my family thinking there might be more to the film than one poorly spoiled twist. I was wrong.

Kyle Pratt (Foster) is a very distraught woman. She’s returning from Berlin to the United States with the casket of her dead husband aboard. To make things worse, at 30,000 feet her daughter Julia goes missing. Kyle looks around the giant aircraft that she helped design, still not finding any trace of her absent little girl. Kyle becomes more frantic the more she looks and finds nothing, troubling an air marshal (Peter Sasrgaard) and the pilot (Sean Bean). No one remembers seeing Julia on board. She believes her daughter is somewhere and someone is definitely responsible. Kyle is dealt a crushing blow when word comes from a Berlin mortician that not only is the plane carrying the body of her dead husband but also her dead daughter. Is Kyle right or is she one crazy mamma? And so the drama unfolds.

Flightplan is a rather boring trip. Well over half of this movie is spent watching Kyle wig out and search compartments for her missing kid. She’s frantic and possessed and it’s interesting to watch a woman come undone, especially of Foster’s talent, but after several searches and little progression, the film feels like it’s going nowhere. There’s very little story for very long stretches of time. Flightplan relies on its outlandish final twists to provide a story, because without them the film would just have been 60 minutes of a mother freaking out on a plane. You can see that with home movies.

The premise is a direct homage (or rip-off) of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, but Flightplan could have been something special if it wasn’t so afraid of going against convention. The film sets up our leading lady looking for her missing child, and as the hours tick away she becomes more and more undone, practically terrorizing the other passengers. In a bit of incisive bigotry, Kyle even unfairly blames a pair of Middle Eastern passengers, who then garner everyone’s suspicious eyes. Now, with all this set up, what if Flightplan took a different path and we remained in doubt whether Kyle ever had a living daughter, and then through her grief, confusion, frustration, and misplaced anger she became a terrorist and was the cause of the plane going down. Wouldn’t that be neat? A little thought-provoking about role reversals in a post-9/11 anxiety-riddled world? It’s not like I expected a dour, Twilight Zone-esque ending, but Flightplan presents Kyle as a crazy woman with the entire world against her, and yet the movie virtually winks at you to say, “Don’t worry, this is Hollywood, no matter how outlandish the conspiracy, our heroine will always be right.” At the end, the film even has the distasteful audacity to have a scene where Kyle walks past every airline passenger, shaming them for having ever doubted a crazy loud woman who had terrified them and jeopardizing their safety. Shame on you all, passengers. Don’t you know that she’s Jodie Foster? She has TWO OSCARS! Kyle doesn’t even offer an apology to the Middle Eastern passengers, and they even carry her bags for crying out loud!

There’s suspension of disbelief and then there’s Flightplan. The missing-daughter scheme is so ridiculous, so convoluted, so rickety, that it makes Scooby-Doo schemes look downright like Hitchcock. For those who have seen the film, or just want to know the laundry list of variables to allow this plan to work, read on (massive spoilers ahead). Apparently, the ones behind everything are the helpful air marshal and one stewardess. They want to squeeze 50 million dollars from the airline. This is the best way they propose to do so: First, they locate an airline engineer living abroad and kill her husband and make it look like suicide. Then they pay off the mortician so they can stash explosives in her husband’s security sealed coffin. Then apparently they know when Kyle will want to fly again and it also happens to be a flight that the marshal and the stewardess will be scheduled aboard. Now, once the plane is in flight, the marshal somehow manages to steal the little girl, awakening no one, takes Kyle?s boarding pass and doesn’t awaken her, and stows the little girl away without being seen. They then let Kyle go nuts looking for her missing tyke so they can, get this, have a credible hijacker that they can accuse of plotting to blow up the plane unless … she gets 50 million wired into an account. Afterwards, the marshal will somehow get the Feds to kill Kyle and he’ll slip the detonator in her cold dead hand. Oh, and the stewardess changes the flight manifest twice too. What. The. Hell? Does this sound like the easiest way to make money? This plan also involves Kyle wiggling her way into the cargo hold and manually opening her hubby’s casket with the security code so that the marshal can get a hold of the hidden explosives. This entire tortuous plan revolves around a primary assumption that NO ONE will remember or interact with Kyle’s daughter the entire time. This assumes not a single person will remember little Julia, even though mother and daughter boarded first onto an empty plane. What would happen if Julia hit the call button for a pillow? Oops. What would happen if anyone next to them just said, “Hi?” Oops. What would happen if people on the plane contacted anyone at the airport? Oops. The entire conspiracy rests on 400 people’s bad memories. Those do not seem like good odds to me, but then again I’m not a movie villain. The entire heft of Flightplan is built around the revealing of this nefarious, fool-proof plot. The movie can’t help but crash and burn with such a laughable, preposterous Big Twist to give plausibility to the proceedings.

It’s a shame because Foster gives a real nail-biting performance. She’s splendidly rattled and lets the audience see the gears of fear turn in her eyes. The acting as a whole is the lone strength of Flightplan. Foster provides entertainment just from her sheer talent to be able to make a turkey like this flick even remotely watchable. The rest of the cast is okay to good and they all deserve pilot wings for keeping straight faces.

Flightplan is a timid, tedious, tiresome, and painfully preposterous thriller. Foster’s excellent performance is wasted in a film that spins its wheels before unleashing a dreaded torrent of illogical plot twists. You may be twisting your head around just to understand how any of this deeply flawed movie could be plausible. Flightplan should appeal to people that liked 2004’s The Forgotten, a very similar child-vanishes thriller. Another thing both movies have in common is that they’re utterly terrible.

Nate’s Grade: C-

A Very Long Engagement (2004)

Deep in the heart of WWI trenches, we begin this sprawling tale by narrowing in on five French soldiers. Each man has been accused of self-inflicting a wound to escape service, and each man is sentenced to spend the rest of their likely short lives in No Man’s Land, the stretch of bare land between the two trenches. One of these men is Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), a young country boy engaged to the charming Mathilde (Audrey Tautou). When she learns his fated punishment and fails to hear word from Manech, she steps out to launch her own investigation into the possible whereabouts of Manech or the possible details of her fiancé’s demise. She enlists her family, solicits strangers, and puts ads in newspapers to unravel the truth. Along the way she hears various stories from all sorts of people and attempts to form them into a clear picture of what went on in that trench, good or bad.

A Very Long Engagement could be flippantly described as “Rashomon in a trench,” but from the get-go it grabs you by the lapels and will not let go. Once again, Jeunet tells his story in a criss-crossing narrative. Front and center we learn about each doomed man’s life in snapshot, and while the device has a slight eulogy feel, it’s a fantastic way to show the depth of characters in such brevity. A Very Long Engagement is an immeasurably rich film where each detail is threaded into the film to create a magnificent artistic tapestry beyond compare. The tiniest details in the film like Mathilde’s tuba playing (the only instrument whose sound mimics a distress call), to the mail carrier choosing to slide his bike over gravel just further enhance the vibrant, animated world of Jeunet.

Jeunet is quite possibly the most visually gifted director working today (he turned down Harry Potter 5). He couldn’t film an ugly shot composition if he tried with all his French might. As expected, A Very Long Engagement is gorgeous to look at. The production design is massively intricate, the cinematography, while computer assisted, has a shimmering radiance to it. This is simply the best looking film of all 2004, Hero be damned. You could pause any second in this film and use it as a glossy postcard. Jeunet has the technical credentials to fasten together complex and beautiful worlds. A Very Long Engagement is a technical marvel and gorgeous to experience.

Tautou, also as expected, is wonderful once more. She’s the anchor of the film and the audience feels every heartbreak and glimmer of hope this talented actress explores. The supporting cast is full of familiar Jeunet players and each performance adds to the richness of the film. They feel like characters and not stock roles or cliches.

There is some difficulty with following the storyline. There are so many subplots built upon other subplots that the film’s momentum takes a bit of a dive in the second act. A Very Long Engagement can also get very confusing when it comes to remembering so many names. There are maybe 30 characters to keep track of and as the subplots mount new characters are added to the pile, including a widow played by a surprisingly fluent Jodie Foster. It’s best to employ some kind of memory trick to keep the many colorful characters of Jeunet’s world straightened.

The focus of A Very Long Engagement is on Mathilde’s investigation into what really happened in that trench. She wants to know what happened to her beloved, and as her search picks up steam we get further glimpses of her relationship with Manech. One of my biggest problems I had with 2003’s Cold Mountain was that Jude Law was travailing through hell and back to get back to his beloved Nicole Kidman even though their relationship pre-war lasted as long as a Super Bowl commercial. It’s not that I disbelieve the overpowering nature of love, but I need more from my characters than shifty glances and a quick ejaculation of love (get your mind out of the gutter). Now, in A Very Long Engagement, Jeunet opens by showing the measures Manech will endure to return to his beloved, however, as the film goes on we also see enough peeks into the depths of their relationship beforehand, which dates all the way back to when they were children

A Very Long Engagement forges such a grand and sweeping love story that the audience gets just as immersed as Mathilde about the search for her man. There are so many lovely, intelligent moments between Mathilde and Manech, like their first sexual encounter. Every time Manech lights a new match Mathilde removes an article of clothing until, under the soft light of the newly lit match, she’s nude and blows the match out herself. The characters’ overriding love also taps into small truisms like when Mathilde makes arbitrary games for herself to ensure her love’s safety. (“If I can count to ten before that car passes, then he is alive.”) Mathilde’s faith and devotion are driving her investigation and the audience is behind her 100% of the way, fully invested in this mystery. When we reach our conclusion, I don’t mind telling you I was bawling like a baby.

The film has a merry whimsical tone during its origami-like narrative, but when it hits the trenches the film gets down and dirty. Jeunet shows a fascinating view into the hardships of everyday trench life as well as the machinery of death. Storming the other side’s trench, or “going over the top” as it was called, is seen in all its sordid features. There are hearty splashes of blood and gore that can be jarring.

There’s one terrifying scene in A Very Long Engagement involving the explosion of a makeshift hospital. The hospital is inside a hangar for zeppelins (hydrogen gas) and a missile has crashed into the roof with its nose sticking inside. One of the zeppelins becomes loose and slowly floats to the missile nose with unforgivable certainty. People are running around trying to shield themselves from the inevitable, but it does nothing. The moment is played so agonizingly slow that we become overwhelmed with terror. This was the life of WWI warfare.

Having said this, the stark war violence doesn’t exactly gel exceedingly well with the whimsical romantic elements. For some, A Very Long Engagement will seem like two very tonally different movies butting heads and intruding upon the other (perhaps Amelie Goes to War?). Sometimes it does take a while to adjust to one tone after spending time with the other. I feel that the emotional investment in the characters and the anticipation of unraveling the mystery serves as thematic glue over the disproportionate tones. Some will feel chaffed by the two stark tones, but I think the power of the love story will conquer most hearts into experiencing the bloodshed of war to earn the shedding of tears by the film’s romance.

Jeunet has re-teamed with Tautou and created another masterpiece. A Very Long Engagement took hold of me from the start and mesmerized me with its beauty, grace, cruelty, excitement, and warmth. This is a great mystery and a great love story with great visuals and great characters. The opposing tones (whimsy vs. violence) won’t work for everyone, and the film takes one too many divergent paths in the middle, but A Very Long Engagement is a film of such startling originality and feeling that it should be treasured. I was floored by what Jeunet had to offer and deeply moved by the time I had to leave the theater. They don’t make them like this much anymore. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have something in my eye.

Nate’s Grade: A

Panic Room (2002)

Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) is a newly divorced woman shopping around Manhattan for a new place to sow her wild oats thanks to a healthy marital settlement. The brownstone in question is truly spacious. It comes complete with four floors and a working elevator installed by the invalid former owner. Meg’s teenage daughter Sarah immediately takes a shine to her new digs and urges mom to sign the dotted line. It seems besides a great location the place also comes complete with a secret room that houses a separate phone line, a wall of monitors all corresponding to cameras, as well as medical supplies and a silver commode. This “panic room” is surrounded by four feet of concrete and sealed by an airtight steel door. It seems it’s the ultimate in home protection.

But before Meg and Sarah can barely unpack a trio of burglars enters the home with the hopes of securing the reclusive former owner’s riches. Meg grabs her daughter and scurries into the panic room just in time to seal the door behind her. She communicates to the men to take what they want and leave. One of them writes on a piece of paper that what they really want is inside the panic room. The burglars aren’’t going anywhere, are well equipped and know the panic room better than she does. Meg and her daughter are safe but trapped with little voice to the outside. Thus the pieces are all set and an intricate game of moves and counter-moves takes place to see who has the upper hand, in and out of the panic room.

Panic Room is that rare treat as a movie alive and well with energy, tenacity and a double-dose worth of entertainment. The movie flies by and you’re left catching your breath or checking your pulse at certain junctures. The suspense continues in an arching fashion and keeps giving the audience new situations to be taken with.

It’’s been two years since the public has last seen Jodie Foster in a movie and it’s good to have her back. Her performance is nominal but she’’s put through what must be the most physically strenuous film of her career. She has that rare versatility as an actress to wear corsets and frilly-wear one film and then to be holstering a gun and barking at transsexual serial killers the next, all while maintaining complete confidence and integrity at either.

It seems that today we have a staggering lack of female action leads that could kick your ass. Sigourney Weaver once owned this throne but now the only thing we have to offer is pinups. We have Angelina Jolie’’s scary glares. We have the pout of Michelle Rodriguez, who has since blown what promise she showed in Girl Fight by starring in two horrible consecutive films about zombies (one of these said zombies being Vin Diesel). And I don’t think I even need to go into Milla Jovovich. So it’’s refreshing knowing that Foster, even while pregnant for part of filming, can swing with the big boys and surely roll some heads and take some names.

The actors portraying the burglars play basic criminal archetypes, but do passable jobs with them. Forest Whitaker is the soft-spoken security expert who refuses to play rough if the situation calls for it. Jared Leto is the comically impulsive grandson who feels slighted by not being granted a sum of the inheritance. Dwight Yoakam (yes the Dwight Yoakam) is the questionable addition with an itchy trigger finger and a determination to get his mitts on the money.

Director David Fincher, the auteur that gave us a head in a box with Se7en, returns with his kinetic kick and brooding finesse. Fincher is a vastly talented visual director and adds more richness to the film with lovely cinematography and an astutely mature sense of tension.

However, Fincher’’s sensory excesses get the better of him the longer the film goes. Does the audience really need to have the camera travel through the handle of a coffeepot? Does anyone really need the camera to swirl into the bulb of a flashlight so we see how it works? It may come to the point where you’’re anticipating the next superfluous camera movement, and praying that it isn’’t plunging into Yoakam’’s nostrils. Once or twice is fine, but after awhile the nomadic camera movements become far more distracting to the film. The ending is also a bit anti-climactic for my taste.

Panic Room, despite a few missteps, is a great exercise in suspense. You may get so wrapped up you’ll find yourself, as I surprisingly did, reverting to the annoying habit of talking to the characters on screen and trying to instruct them. Panic Room is the kind of movie you wish Hollywood made more often: something with genuine thrills that leaves you pinned to your seat and bubbling with anticipation, before turning you into a puddle of warm goo.

Nate’s Grade: B

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